(The Perrysburg Journal, July 1 1858)
The Haunted House of the Black Swamp
A Ghost Story of Thrilling Interest
In a lonely unfrequented spot, far from any habitation, in the black swamp, on the road as you approximate Findlay from the Maumee, between Portage and Van Buren, is an uncommonly large, old-fashioned house; in the language of the Dutchmen, "one of the old and bestest kind." It is extensively known throughout Northern Ohio as the Woodbury house, and has been reported for many years, as the haunted house of the black swamp. At what period it was erected, tradition fails to tell us; but, aside from the narrative, there is no doubt that it was built in the year 1820, or thereabout; but it has changed owners so often that it is even difficult to tell who is its present landlord. Dr. Duncan, late member of Congress from Cincinnati, deceased, and one Mr. Gibson, of New York, seem somewhat strangely mixed up in its ownership at one time, but whom its present owner or owners may be is unknown. The Gibson here spoken of, is no relation to "William Gibson, one of the institushuns of the city of Tiffin."
The building still remains as a melancholy instance of one of the blackest deeds ever perpetrated by the wickedness of a man--a deed of blood.
About the year 1840, the house was occupied by one John Cleves, who, according to the ghost, committed the murder of the ancient pedler, Syms. Cleves, although suspected, was never punished for the murder of the old pedler, as he was called.
But, "murder will out," a secret vengeance seemed to follow him. He was caught in the act of committing the crime of incest with his own sister, convicted of it, and sentenced for a number of years to the Ohio state prison.
Cleves was discharged from prison at the expiration of his sentence, and was for some time, though his present whereabouts are unknown, wandering about Toledo.
There is, within a few miles of the Woodbury house, an old rookery kept as a tavern, and tenanted by a singular looking old fellow, who calls himself McCrory, who could, if he were inclined, tell a thing or two concerning the old house that might throw considerable light on the subject, but for reasons best known to himself, he refrains as much as possible, from any allusion to the curious mystery that seems to enshroud this deserted ruin.
McCrory is a man with a strangely marked countenance. In the "slang" of the showman, he has a "rummy" nose; as the negro preacher says, it is too large for one man, and not enough for two. To use an expression of Gray, of the Plain Dealer, McCrory is rather a "questionable gug."
I would state here, that our business through the country, was to buy up the old silver coin, coined before the year 1853, and, also, the bank notes of most of the depreciated banks throughout the country. This necessarily brought us in contact with all classes of persons who are to be met with in business operations.
At McCrory's tavern I met with the veteran showman, John Stow, a fellow of generous associations with whom I had no difficulty in forming an acquaintance. With this person I made arrangements to visit and remain a night in the haunted house. We took seats at the table to talk the matter over. I soon found that Stow, like myself, did not believe in the existence of ghosts and hobgoblins. There is to some a source of delightful participation arising from the luxurious indulgence of the inebriating bowl. My friend was an ardent admirer of the rosy god. For a consideration, McCrory furnished us with some cigars of an inferior quality, and a quart of uncommon bad whiskey; with these, while awaiting the time of night proper for us to visit the haunted house, we while away an hour or two, in social conversation upon the various events of our past history.
Previous to leaving the hotel I carefully examined my pistols. I had but two, one a large horse pistol, and a Colt's "six-shooter"--they were all right. It has been my habit for twenty years to carry side arms. Lest the thing should touch the moral sensibilities of my religious friends, I would solicit them to stretch their imagination, and fancy that I carry arms more by mistake than otherwise.
On the 15th of May, 1853, about ten o'clock at night, McCrory took Stow and myself in a thing he called a wagon, and left us at the haunted house. The building has for years been tenantless and is free to be occupied by any one who wishes to reside in it.
Of course there was no one to deny us admission to the house. It was a cold dark night.
As we stepped from the wagon, McCrory spoke not, but grasping me by the hand shook his head ominously, which indicated no good but rather ill. We parted for the night without saying a word, he for his home and Stow and I to take up our abode in the haunted house.--There was one man, who, of all men else, I did desire with me then, and that was Brown, the local editor of the Plain Dealer.
The solemn but certain hour of midnight was gradually approaching, my friend and I were quietly smoking, when, all at once, we were startled from our revery by the appearance of a ghastly looking object in the shape and form of a human skeleton. We were seated on the floor at the time, but soon sprang to our feet as the spectre entered the room.
It seemed to me like the bones of a human being without any flesh on them. I ordered it to stand, at the same time demanding to know the object of its visit. But the phantom did not pay the least attention to me, and continued to advance toward where I stood, but stopped in the centre of the floor directly in front of me; Stow having, according to a previous understanding, taken his position in an opposite corner of the room. This arrangement was made that we might be better prepared to make defense against any attack, should such a thing be attempted.
I confess that it was my opinion that there was some trick about the whole affair, and gotten up for the occasion. My mind was made up to punish the parties with proper severity had I been fortunate enough to have captured them.
The only light we had was the faint glimmering afford by the burning of a few pieces of boards in the fire-place.
As the phantom advanced towards me, I raised one of my pistols, carefully elevating it on a level with his breast, and fired with as much steadiness as I was able, but it faltered not, and as quick as thought I discharged another barrel, but it still continued to advance, until it came within reaching distance of me, when it raised its bony arm in the direction where I stood and motioned my attention. During these few moments of suspense, I closely scrutinized the figure; determined, if possible, to satisfy my mind in relation to its mysterious actions. Making a signal to Stow, we exchanged places, meanwhile, keeping an eye on the object before me. I must confess my inability to explain, satisfactorily, anything concerning this singular object.
Stow still asserts that it had no flesh, and that he could see nothing about it but bones, which he even heard rattle when I fired.
The ghost walked towards the fireplace, turned around, and again passed back to the centre of the room, occupying the same position, with its front in the direction towards me. It again raised its hand and as it did so, uttered in a sepulchral voice, the following words: "Give ear to me and mark well the words that I shall reveal to you. My name is James Syms. I was born in Augusta, Georgia, and was with General Wayne when he fought and defeated the Indians on the skirts of this forest; and at the time of my death was sixty-eight years of age."
I interrupted him here to inquire if he was murdered in the house in which we were then; to which he replied: "Ask me no questions."
The ghost continued his story: "On the approach of evening, in December 1841, I put up at this house, kept at the time by a man by the name of Cleves. After retiring to my room for the night, I was startled from sleep, between morning and midnight, by a blow to the side of my head, with a bludgeon, in the hands of Cleves. I immediately sprang to my feet and attempted to grapple with my assailant, but in doing so received another blow upon my left temple. It was this blow that killed me, being dead before I struck the floor."
The spectre here presented his skull to my view, and true enough it was a confirmation of his statement; the skull presented a large fracture. He continued. "Upon the infliction of the last blow just mentioned, my pain stopped and all consciousness left me--that moment I ceased to exist and the transition of my spirit from the mundane to the celestial spheres, was sudden and sublime. My assailant unaware that I had ceased to live on earth, continued his blows upon my head."
Interrupting him at this part of his story, I enquired if it was his intention to convey to me the idea that he was dead. But I obtained no satisfaction from him, for I received the same answer as before-- "ask me no questions. Listen you to me, and mark well my words."
"I do not live in the sense you mean, yet I do exist in the ethereal spheres, but am forbid to divulge the secrets I know, what I have seen, and part of which I am. My murderer, now satisfied that I no longer breathed, ceased his terrible assault with the bludgeon, and with an axe severed my head from the body; the former he buried under the hearth, in this room, while my body was thrown into the well, which was filled up the same night, and all appurtenances surrounding the well were removed, that the place of burial might forever remain in oblivion."
Thinking that I might detect the ugly faced rascal in his lies, I told him I could not see how his skull could be on his shoulders and buried under the earth at the same time. That one could be in two places at the same time seemed contrary to my philosophy. As I spoke the skull from his shoulders disappeared with the quickness of thought, and in less than a moment I saw the figure of the skeleton before me a headless trunk. A mysterious change had occurred, and a cold chill passed over me, which left me as it were, for the moment half unnerved. It was but a moment, for quickly recovering self possession, I assumed an attitude prepared for any emergency that might present itself. The ghost stood before me a frightful headless object. All at once I heard a loud voice, without knowing whence it came, commanding me "to take up the bricks of the hearth and disentomb the skull of the murdered Syms."
I proceeded to execute the order without a moments delay, and after digging up a few brick, in a minute or two came to the skull of a human being. While examining it, the thing passed rather mysteriously from my hands, and in a moment it was back upon the shoulders of the spectre. The manner in which it left me seemed so unaccountably strange, that I was utterly astonished, and am, even now, unable to explain how the hell the thing got from my hands.
A moment after the skull fixed itself upon the shoulders of the ghost, it commenced speaking, taking up the thread of discourse where it had left off, and proceeded to say that, "before going to bed, I placed my keys and pocket book under my head; my murderer, having disposed of my body, took my pocket book, and with the keys of my trunk proceeded to examine my effects.--In my pocket book were ninety dollars, on the bank of "St. Clair," Michigan; in the pockets of my pantaloons, were some small change. My trunks contained sundry articles of not much value. My horse and peddling wagon were taken to the Indians, and there disposed of by my assassin.
With the proceeds derived from the sale thereof, he returned to the neighborhood of the scene of the murder, and there resided, until arrested and convicted for the detestable crime which sent him to the Ohio prison. As soon as he had washed the external guilt from his hands and blood stained weapon, he proceeded to count the money. Cleves, not withstanding he resided in the neighborhood of the murder, was never arrested for the crime.--But his wickedness was not to pass unpunished, being arrested for incest, he was subsequently convicted and confined a number of years in the Ohio prison. But for my terrible murder her remains unpunished. No one aided him in the foul transaction, and my death rests on him alone."
At this part of his story I thought proper to enquire what his object was in appearing to me. He answered that "although it was not his object of intention to reply to me, or to any question I might put to him, yet, the information he would impart to me embraced all that was necessary for me to know. My purpose in appearing to you at this time, is that I can communicate through you to the world an account of my vile and bloody death, that mankind may know my fate and abhor my murderer. You are hereby commanded to write my grand nephew, Gilmore Syms, of Columbus Georgia, and acquaint him with the particulars of all that I have communicated to you; mention that it is my desire that my remains be taken up and receive the proper rites of burial. I am the spirit of the murdered Syms, whose soul for years was seen about these premises; have wandered up and down upon the earth until relief came by communicating to you, subjects incommunicable to man. Through you the world will learn the nature of my foul and bloody death. I have nearly done--the hour is approaching when I must presently leave you.--Many persons have seen, but dared not speak to me, and I had not power of my own will to speak until first spoken to by living man; your courage has relieved my soul and now affords me peace.
I positively refused to comply with his request unless he answered me one question. He told me to name it. I went on to say that there was a mystery concerning the disappearance of the daughter of Col. Aaron Burr. Mrs. Alston, wife of the Governor of South Carolina, and I wished him to explain it, as I knew he could do so.--The spectre answered: "in peace her gentle spirit rests; as I was dealt with by the hand of a man, so she received her death most foul and bloody. She perished at sea, being murdered by pirates, while on her way to join her husband in Charleston, South Carolina."
As he ceased speaking, the spectre extended toward me its bony hand, manifesting a determination to shake hands, with which I complied, and as I grasped its fleshless grip a cold chill suddenly passed over me, that caused my blood to freeze as it were in my healthy veins. Thus, hand in hand, in locked though loathed embrace, front to front and face to face, I walked with the phantom some yards from the door to the open air. I was about to speak to it, when it turned its nasty face towards me exclaiming: "I must now retire, my moment has come in which I must depart to that abode prepared for the spirits of all mankind. Ward, to you farewell--let my eased spirit retire in peace--remember well and forget not what I have told you."
Just then there was a sudden light of a bright bluish cast, and a loud noise like to the sound of distant thunder, as the light disappeared and the thunder ceased, I discovered that the ghost of the "haunted house of the black swamp" had vanished. Stow and I left the house instantly afterwards; we said nothing on our way to the tavern, and reached McCrory's about day-break.
I am no coward, nevertheless, I confess that poor as I may be, money would not tempt me to go through a repetition of a similar adventure.